Ken White is a Swindon boy, born and bred. His family has lived in Swindon for generations, working in the Swindon GWR yards. Ken was taken on as a rivet hotter fresh out of school when he was 15 but, as he tells it, he hated it and quickly wriggled his way into GWR’s signwriting department. Ken knew from an early age he wasn’t sporty or academic but he loved drawing and painting. Determined to seek a career in the creative arts, he secured a place at Swindon College, previously Swindon Art School, to study art in the 1960s. Soon after he graduated, Ken submitted drawings to a local magazine, Student. In itself this is unremarkable, but unbeknownst to Ken at the time, Richard Branson owned the magazine; it was his first business set up in 1968. Student took the drawings for publication, but it was another ten years before the two started working together consistently.
Ken worked his way into painting murals during the 1970s often using the art of trompe l’oeil to create startling illusions. Branson saw a large mural Ken had been commissioned to paint by Plymouth City Council in 1978 and contacted him. He commissioned Ken to paint a mural on his new recording studios at Shepherd’s Bush, The Town House (see image 1 & 2). By 1984 Branson had secured Ken’s services as a muralist, paying him a retainer to prioritise work for his company, Virgin. For the next twenty years Ken painted murals all over the world for Branson including recording studios, record stores, airport lounges, hotels and offices and more personally, Branson’s homes in Kidlington, Oxfordshire and Palm Beach. Both men were similar in age and background and both had come up through Swindon’s hotbed of talented young people destined to leave their mark on the world.
Virgin Atlantic was born in 1984. Branson asked Ken to create an image for the nose of the Boeings and Airbuses that would be easily recognised. Drawing inspiration from the mascots painted on WWII fighter aircraft and bombers, Ken came up with an initial design (image 3: one of Ken’s initial sketches for the Scarlet Lady) which later became referred to as the Scarlet Lady because of her crimson clothing, reflecting Virgin’s corporate colours. The final design was translated into vinyl gels, which were then heat sealed onto the noses of Virgin’s aeroplanes (image 4: Ken and Maiden Japan 1989). It’s an expensive business and each gel only lasts about 14 months before it needs replacing due to air friction.
The White/Branson working partnership came to an end around 2004. Ken thinks it was because Branson became too removed from the day to day running of the business, being replaced by accountants and lawyers. He seems very understanding about it, but it’s easy to see the sadness in his face as he talks about the loss of a man he regarded as a close friend. Oddly, Virgin don’t recognise on their website that Ken White is the artist who created their Scarlet Lady. They make reference to the Varga Girl by Alberto Varga, which was part of the research behind the Scarlet Lady – like all art, nothing is truly original – but they neglect to mention Ken White at all. Ken told me with a shrug he thinks it’s probably to do with copyright and money. He added that for him it wasn’t about that; all he wanted was acknowledgement for his work.